Tonight, I attended a special event organised by Cityread London 2017: a conversation between S.J. Parris, author of ‘Prophecy’ (this year’s Cityread London reading choice) and Tracy Borman, historian and author of ‘The Private Lives of the Tudors’, which I wrote about a few months ago.
There could have been no better venue for this talk: Lambeth Palace Library is the historic library of the Archbishops of Canterbury and was founded in 1610 by Archbishop Bancroft, who bequeathed his own collection of printed books and manuscripts to form the nucleus of a free public library. With the support of James I and Archbishop Abbot the Library flourished and its collections have steadily increased down to the present day.
Both Parris and Borman are fascinated (like so many of us) by the Tudors, and both are highly knowledgeable & entertaining speakers. A number of themes were covered and this was such an interesting evening that I’ve encapsulated some of them below:
‘Prophecy’ – and Giardano Bruno
The inspiration behind Parris’s novel ‘Heresy’, the second in her historical fiction series, is the time that Bruno spent in England (1583-85). Giardano Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet and cosmological theorist who travelled extensively around Europe but who was eventually burnt at the stake for his beliefs.
Bruno’s private life was shadowy, but according to Parris this actually helps a fiction writer because you can fill in the gaps as you wish. We do know, however, about Bruno’s travels, the people he met and who he worked for – and the books that he wrote survive to this day. We also know that he was an immensely brave person and would not stop asking questions or challenging the status quo, despite the risks he incurred. Today, Bruno is regarded as a hero of free speech.
Why are we still so fascinated by the Tudors?
Our obsession with the Tudors shows no signs of abating – but why? One reason is that, during the early years of the Tudors, huge strides were made in portraiture, for example through the work of Hans Holbein. For the first time, we know what the ruling classes really looked like.
It’s fair, also, to say that the Tudors were the hinge from the medieval world to the modern world, particularly in respect of overseas expansion and the beginning of scientific discovery. Whilst Henry VII, during the early part of the Tudor era, embraced the medieval traditions of his predecessors, Henry VIII revolutionised the country and his reign marked the true beginnings of the modern age. The Tudor era heralded the likes of Shakespeare and Raleigh: this truly was a golden age, when the confidence of the nation went from strength to strength.
On a slightly grimmer note, the era of Sir Francis Walsingham and his cronies saw the beginnings of the country’s central intelligence service. This will make you smile, though: Walsingham’s code name was “007”. A true fact!
There’s no doubt that we remain fascinated by Elizabeth, more than four hundred years after her death.
Both Parris and Borman agree that Elizabeth I is a gift to both non-fiction and fiction writers. From the outset, however, Parris decided to make Elizabeth a “shadowy” figure in her novels; so much is known about her that Parris resisted casting her as a central character. That said, through the eyes of Bruno, Parris’s protagonist, we get to see Elizabeth as a frightened individual, well aware of how much danger her life is constantly in. ‘Prophecy’ shows just how vulnerable Elizabeth was and how that it affected her whole life. Yet, she remained brave, insisting on walking to chapel every Sunday so that her people could see her, against the advice of her courtiers, who were petrified of assassins.
One continually compelling element of Elizabeth’s character is her relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots. Borman argues that Elizabeth wasn’t just afraid to meet Mary, she was also afraid of Mary’s reputed charisma. She didn’t want to be drawn in by it and instead would grill her courtiers for details (How tall is Mary? What’s her skin like?).
We are fortunate that many of Elizabeth’s writings, from her childhood onwards, have survived: poems, letters, written gifts to her stepmothers, from which we can tell that she was both articulate and precocious. Her relationships with other women tell us much about her; she was affectionate and loyal to her female friends and hard on the women she despised (“floating wenches”). Born into a world of women, in Greenwich, Elizabeth also died in a world of women, in Richmond – where, knowing she was dying, she personally selected the women she wanted to be with her during her last days.
Privacy is a relatively modern concept and was less highly valued by the Tudors than it is now (we are arguably far more prudish and protective of privacy). Although we might think of Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber as being her inner sanctum, within that world very little actually was private. Then, everything was seen as justifiable in the public interest; nothing was sacred. Although the debate over Elizabeth I being a virgin has never been resolved, the likelihood is that we would know about it if she had taken lovers.
Generally speaking, this was an extremely devout age, states Borman. Most people believed in the afterlife and were worried about where they would spend it. So, although the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation, which Thomas Cromwell spearheaded, were political tools, Cromwell was no cynic and was acting out of genuine belief and personal conviction.
Magical practices were popular, too – a way in which people hedged their bets. The content of the occult thread in Parris’s books is all valid; through it, we come to see alchemy/natural magic as the beginnings of natural science – for example, the renowned mathematician, astrologer and philosopher John Dee, who was an adviser to Elizabeth I, straddled the worlds of science and magic.
Thoughts on historical fiction
Borman describes herself as a “devourer” of historical fiction, which she finds inspiring. She is an admirer of Hilary Mantel, saying that although ‘Wolf Hall’ is slightly too sympathetic to Thomas Cromwell, Mantel understands and interprets him better than any previous novelist. Borman also enjoys Jean Plaidy’s novels (music to my ears; I’m a big Plaidy fan and can’t understand why she isn’t more widely-read these days) and Hilda Lewis, citing the latter’s ‘Wife of the Bastards’ as a big inspiration. From a non-fiction perspective, Borman admires David Starkey and John Guy.
According to Parris, it was Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ that made her want to write historical fiction. It remains the book she has re-read more than all others. Another favourite is Hilary Mantel’s ‘No Place of Greater Safety’, which sets the gold standard for writing historical dialogue, which can be incredibly difficult to do.
Both authors agree that any unnecessary changing of the facts is irritating, such as in TV show ‘The Tudors’, when Henry VIII’s younger sister’s name was changed from Mary to Margaret, apparently to avoid confusing viewers with another character called Mary.
What next, for both authors?
Borman is just finishing her first work of fiction: a historical novel. She has chosen as her protagonist a real-life figure, but someone about whom little is known: the daughter of one of Elizabeth I’s favourite ladies-in-waiting; the book is set during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James I. Although greatly enjoying the process, Borman says that she has found fiction a difficult discipline after writing so much non-fiction, especially when having to choose how much to bend certain facts.
For Parris, the TV rights to her books have been sold and a script is in development. Casting news to follow!
The icing on the cake, tonight, was seeing a number of key historic documents held in the Library, one being the Warrant for the Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, another being a Privy Council letter to Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, ordering the enactment of said Warrant and signed by personages including Walsingham, Cecil and Dudley. We also viewed a letter from Elizabeth I to George Talbot, Mary’s personally-selected custodian, in which the Queen acknowledges her debt to Talbot and his wife, Bess – apparently Talbot was “deeply touched” by this letter.